Months before New Hampshire passed Education Freedom Accounts legislation and drastically expanded parental choice, the state’s Department of Education had already contracted with Prenda to bring its micro-school model to the Granite State.
Now Prenda is here, offering opportunities for students who need more personalized attention than they’d get in a traditional classroom — and for adults who would like to be part of educating the next generation.
“Prenda is a model of education called learning pods. These are small groups of mixed-age kids — between five and ten students — who will meet in an informal space and do their education together,” says Kelly Smith, the company’s founder and CEO. “They will study academic core subjects like math, reading, science and social studies. They will also collaborate on creative projects, engineering, business. There’s a lot of group dynamics and fun.
“The goal is to empower these kids as learners, to give them an education for the 21st century. We want them to be someone who knows how to learn, who goes out and chases down the material, the content, the skills that they need to accomplish their goals.”
With New Hampshire school enrollments declining and districts forced to close schools, the micro-school model could be the perfect solution in some rural communities, as well as for parents whose students struggle in large classroom settings.
Education pods exploded onto the education scene during the COVID-19 lockdowns as frustrated parents looked for ways to get organized, adult-led education for kids otherwise abandoned to “Zoom school.” Multiple studies have shown that online-only learning has been an academic disaster for many students, particularly elementary school.
A study by the Rand Corporation found that students using the “personalized study” model similar to micro-schools experienced significant improvements, often surpassing the national averages in math and reading achievement.
But while the goal is student empowerment, Smith insists “there’s a critical role of an adult in this education.”
“Playing the role of a human being who’s present with these individual kids. They know each child individually, they motivate, they coach. They inspire and mentor,” Smith says.
What these “learning guides,” as Prenda calls them, don’t do is set the academic standards or pick the content.
“They do not prepare lesson plans. They’re not responsible for the pedagogy. In fact, we have a whole system and support for that: remote resources, experts in learning science and teaching special ed and all the things that need to be considered,” Smith says.
“There’s a real need for a caring adult who knows you and is invested in you and wants you to be your best self. Unfortunately, not every student shows up perfectly motivated and ready to learn.
“Learning guides play the key role of the human who’s there helping you decide you want to be a learner,” Smith says.
N.H. Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut is a believer in the Prenda model. Last spring, his Department of Education entered a $6 million contract to make Prenda services available to districts where they are needed. The program, called Recovering Bright Futures, is designed to help students recover lost learning from the COVID-19 lockdown.
Much of the conversation about expanding education choices in New Hampshire has focused on the students and what they hope to achieve. But without adults who are passionate about education and willing to step into roles as mentors and guides, etc., the demand for alternative models like micro-schools may exceed the supply.
“There are probably people reading this interview who are thinking ‘I could make a contribution in my community, maybe I could do this [be a learning guide.] We’d love to talk to them.
“And,” Smith adds, “they get paid.”